Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Anita Nair, Chain of Custody

I'd like to hear from someone who's read Anita Nair's first Inspector Gowda book, A Cut-Like Wound, which I haven't read. I recently finished the second in the series, Chain of Evidence, which picks up the story after his assistant is recovering from injuries he received in A Cut-Like Wound, and a good deal of the story revolves around his recovery and other threads from the earlier novel. Not that it's difficult to keep up, when starting with Chain of Evidence: Nair is careful to include new readers in the story.

Set in Bangalore, Chain of Evidence deals with the trafficking of children, in particular a young girl who is the daughter of Gowda's housekeeper. The story shuttles between the Inspector's daily life (the investigation, his wife who has reappeared in his life, his mistress) and the point of view of a young man who works for the traffickers. Gowda's life only skates above the dark underside of the story, while the trafficker provides the heartless underbelly.

The result is dark but frequently amusing, providing a glimpse of Bangalore and India today along the way. Is A Cut-Like Wound a similar blend?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Donna Leon: Earthly Remains

Donna Leon's new Guido Brunetti book follows the typical/atypical pattern of the series, developing slowly toward an ambiguous ending, with familiar and unfamiliar elements along the way. In Earthly Remains, as in some of the earlier books, we are immersed in an aspect of Venice not commonly available to the tourist: in this case woeing (Venetial style) among the outer islands of the laguna.

Brunetti falls into a trap he has created for himself and as a result finds himself taking an unexpected vacation, staying by himself in a villa some distance away from the city, a house belonging to one of his wife Paola's relatives. The caretaker finds out that the detective is interested in spending some time out on the lagoon rowing, and begins a series of excursions that tax Brunetti's muscles but not his ptience (and not the reader's, although there is more about rowing in this particular style than we would have thought we wanted to know). This is a side of Venice way beyond the calle and campi, instead among burds and reeds and especially bees (another major topic of the book, both in the process of the detective's vacation and in the working of the plot.

Of course, there are twists involving a death in the present and a violent incident in the past, as well as currption of a new sort for a series that has often explored corruption. In addition to the faxing natural glories of the region, we also see the industrial mainland, as well as the bureaucracy and the family life for which the series is renowned.

All of the Brunetti books have a dark, pessimistic core, but some are more bleak and some more hopeful. Earthly Remains earns its gloomy atmosphere with a complex portrayal of human nature along with its detailed exploration of nature itself at the edges of Venice's glorious and its dark corners. Leon's strength as a writer is to inveigle the reader with language that seems casual and unforced into following down the book's twisty and twisted path.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Karo Hämäläinen: Cruel is the Night

There is a locked-room mystery quality to Finnish author Karo Hämäläinen's first novel to be translated into English, Cruel is the Night, along with an homage to Agatha Christie, toward the end. But the best part of the novel is a black comedy told from the varied points of view of the 3 participants, two couples, Robert and Elise and Mikko and Veera, at a dinner party in the London high rise occupied by Robert and Elise.
The first two monologues, by boyhood friends Robert and Mikko, and pompous and self-absorbed, qualities that are immediately punctured by Veera's monologue, from outside their self-centered maleness. The Rashomon quality continues with an additional thread about the survivor of the reunion that has brought the couples together (we aren't supposed to know, presumably, who this survivor is, but the language hardly leaves any doubt). So we don't know who the survivor is, or how the presumed deaths of the other 3 occurred, but the mystery isn't really maintained as a driving force of the book, which remains a fairly static series of interrelated blackouts that reveal the interrelationships, obvious and not, of these 4.What draws the reader on is more the comic but emotionally loaded interplay, revealed not only through the dialogue at the party but also through flashbacks to their past, some of which deal with the death of Robert's girlfriend, in their youth (Mikko and Veera became a couple almost by default, as friends of Robert and the doomed girl).
So this is a novel about murder, but not a mystery really. Instead it's a very dark comedy, sometimes witty and sometimes wildly farcical. Forget the slim thread connecting the book to the mystery genre and enjoy the ride.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Repost: Heda Margolius Kovály's Innocence


-       Reposted from the late lamented site The Life Sentence, now offline

-        Down Prague's Mean Streets:  Heda Margolius Kovály, whose well-known memoir of the Holocaust, Under a Cruel Star, was first published in 1973, also published one crime novel in Czech, Innocence: or, Murder on Steep Street, in 1985. According to her son, who wrote the introduction to the new English translation, Kovály modeled her book on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, which were among the many books she had translated into Czech from English and German. But the Chandler connection is a bit misleading: Innocence is an intriguing reimagining of the crime genre in the context of Prague in the 1950s. Kovály does take from Chandler a focus on the real conditions of the lives of her contemporaries, but Kovály’s Prague in 1952, under Soviet totalitarianism, is a very different place than Chandler’s 1940s Los Angeles, under corrupt, bankrupt capitalism.

-        The style of Kovály’s book shares more with Czech literature of the 1970s: The philosophical meta-fictional prologue could have been spoken by one of Milan Kundera’s characters. But Innocence suggests most particularly a novel by Zdena Salivarová, Summer in Prague. Salivarová’s famous husband, Josef Škvorecký, also wrote detective stories, but his honest policeman is quite different from Chandler’s characters or, for that matter, Kovaly’s. Both Innocence and Summer in Prague have a lightness of touch in dealing with difficult material and both focus on young women whose lives are stifled by the overbearing state. Innocence does include elements of crime fiction absent in Summer in Prague: two murder investigations frame the novel, whereas the only death in Salivarová’s book is accidental (the result of social conditions rather than murder per se); but the real engine behind the misfortunes that befall the central characters in both is the unfeeling apparatus of the all-powerful state.

-        Kovály’s novel does begin with the kind of murder one finds in Chandler and American noir generally, but it’s a red herring: the child-murderer who would have been a serial killer in a conventional crime story serves as a counterpoint to the real serial killer, whom we discover only later. The murder at the beginning announces the book as crime fiction and introduces the characters around whom the action will take place: a police detective, Captain Nedoma, and an usher in the Horizon movie theater, Helena Nováková. The crimes with which the book is really concerned occur later, toward the middle of the book.

-        The focus of the narrative is split among several of the women working at the movie theater, plus a few policemen: in addition to Nedoma, Lieutenant Vendyš (who ultimately replaces Nedoma as the book’s primary investigator) and a satanic figure, Vojta Hrůza, from the secret police (according to the notes, his last name means “dread“ in Czech). The central character, though, is Helena Nováková, who had been working in a publishing house, until her husband (a planning official) was falsely arrested by a paranoid government, branding her, by association, as an enemy of the state. She feels fortunate to have been offered a menial job as an usher in the movie theater, but is mainly preoccupied with her jailed husband’s dilemma. The most important of the other women working at the Horizon are Marie Vránová, a young woman seemingly only interested in having a good time, and Mrs. Kouřimská, an older woman who is carrying the burden of more than one secret life.

-        Helena’s interior monologue, devoted to her despair and the solace she seeks in her hope for her husband’s release, is the only first-person voice we hear. In the depth of her despair, “The solitude separating Helena from other people was starting to distance her from inanimate things as well, stealing into her brain, where every thought floated unanchored into the void.” Her loneliness leads her into a tentative relationship with a stranger who primarily foreshadows the relationship that her despair will lead her into with Hrůza, who presents himself as a friend who may be able to help her husband. There are several other seductions: Marie has an affair with the married Nedoma and Mrs. Kouřimská, in addition to her private sexual proclivities, also has a relationship with Hrůza, providing the opportunity for his original introduction to Helena.

-        It is the two policeman-seducers who precipitate, in very different ways, the deaths at the center of the story, one of which, the “murder on Steep Street” of the book’s subtitle, Vendyš will investigate throughout the second half of the novel. The Lieutenant, though, is an ordinary cop who seems incapable of penetrating to the dark heart of the crime, as the narrator notes in an image that recapitulates the novel’s central setting in a theater: “Steep Street was like an empty auditorium after a performance, with Vendyš the late-coming spectator who could only guess what had taken place.“

-        The investigation leads not so much to the truth behind a murder (though a resolution of a sort is achieved) as to a revelation by a confessed killer about the underlying subject that provides book’s main title, innocence, especially in the context of life in a police state:

-        “No one can do a thing to stop people like Hrůza…They’re like earthquakes, or the plague. But they could never inflict so much misery if it weren’t for…the little helpers who try to convince you it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing wrong with a little snitching…They make evil seem like a natural, trivial thing…they blur the line between guilt and innocence, till eventually you accept it and murder just seems like an accident with nobody to blame.”

-        In the trivializing of evil lies the link between Kovály’s Holocaust memoir and Innocence, as well as the dark undertone that makes her crime novel so distinctive and powerful.

-        The book ends with a coda, a conversation between a shadowy fat man who had crept into the Horizon earlier, and an even fatter man, who together seem to be the actual spies whose actions had caused government’s paranoid suspicion, which in turn ruined Nováková and her husband. The two fat men untangle, from their particular point of view, the skein of guilt that runs through the book’s deaths and betrayals, and one of them refers to the possible justice in some afterlife: “I just hope it isn’t like here. Because if we got what we deserved for everything we did in our lives, they’d have to just cancel heaven, straight up.” That pessimism echoes the novel’s epigraph, from Hemingway: “All things truly wicked start from an innocence.”

3 by Pierre Lemaitre (from The Life Sentence site)

Continuing my reposts of my reviews from the late lamented website The Life Sentence (now offline), here's an overview of Pierre Lemaitre's first 3 twisty thrillers.

-        In his Commandant Verhoeven Trilogy, Pierre Lemaitre has set out to investigate the history and the possibilities of crime fiction, and noir in particular. In Irène (2014), the narrator offers an analysis of the career of James Ellroy that could serve as a description of noir writing in general: as his “style evolved, it became more savage, more visceral as Ellroy began to trade in inhumanity at its most elemental. The seediest districts of the city became a metaphor for a desperate, disillusioned humanity. Love took on the acrid taste of urban tragedy.” Yet Lemaitre refreshes these tropes of noir by turning them inside out. Irène takes crime fiction not only as the genre of the story but also the subject and the structural principle of the novel. In Alex (2014), the author twists and re-twists an abducted woman’s relationship to both the perpetrator and the police until the story reaches a final clarity. In Camille, all the principal characters are lying, to each other, to themselves, and even to the reader: Lemaitre is making clear the importance of prevarication (as well as unreliable narrators) in crime writing.

-        But in no way are these books a dry exercise in crime fiction writing or a farcical metafictional jest. Each of the novels, and all three as a group, are among the very best French crime novels to be translated into English so far (and there is some very strong competition). The first installment in the series, Irène, begins with the case of a battered woman but moves on very quickly to the principal plot, the case of a horrific murder and dismemberment of two women in an apartment on the periphery of Paris. As the gruesome details of the murders accumulate and Commandant Camille Verhoeven of the brigade criminelle pursues the few leads in the case, a reader with a heavy heart may come to the same conclusion as the Commandant, who early on in the story “feels immensely weary, because this whole thing is predictable, banal.” The violence against women, the murder of prostitutes, the pursuit of suspects among the pimps, property developers, and petit bourgeoisie seems all too typical of the genre, a run-of-the-mill serial killer story distinguished mostly by the Parisian setting and the quirky team of detectives. Verhoeven himself is a tiny man, whose growth was stunted by his artist mother’s tobacco habit, but the quirkiness of the detective and his colleagues is itself typical of the genre (think of Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg, another eccentric French detective of small stature). However, Lemaitre’s book is more than the simple depiction of the “universe of carnage, peopled by impulsive psychopaths, shady deals, and old scores settled,” as the detective himself announces. Lemaitre is less concerned with displaying all the sadistic, misogynist carnage and more interested in pursuing the essential nature of crime fiction and of the relationship of the storyteller to the reader, but a subtext of the whole trilogy is the dependence of crime fiction on violence against women.

-        After the double murder becomes linked to an earlier murder by the “rather American exoticism” of the crimes as well as a fingerprint match in both cases, another connection between the crimes comes gradually into focus: both crime scenes seem patterned on literary precedents, well-known novels by James Ellroy and Bret Easton Ellis. Thus the press dubs the killer “the Novelist.” From that point on, the brigade criminelle relies on information provided by sources such as one character’s “authoritative introduction to crime fiction,” and another’s survey of the novels published in Gallimard’s famous Série Noire.

-        After other crimes, present and past, prove to be based on Scottish, French, and Swedish crime classics, the narrative itself turns inside out: the team of detectives discovers that the killer has been keeping a journal of his murders, and Lemaitre refers to a detail of his own life that the killer gets wrong, a detail that makes us suddenly question who has been telling the story we’ve been reading up to that point. Lemaitre upends the book in a logical and devastating way, while ultimately remaining true to the pact between the author and the reader, not in the same way but in the same spirit perhaps as Agatha Christie’s notorious ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, when the narrator turned out to be spectacularly unreliable. The writer in both cases reminds us of the narrativity of the text — that we’re only seeing what the narrator wants us to see — while maintaining the credibility and the emotional truth of the story.

-        In Alex, which takes place four years after the events of Irène, Commandant Verhoeven is a wreck, devastated by the loss of his wife and unwilling to take on anything with living victims, accepting only, “Cases where the deaths are behind you, not in front. No kidnappings. Camille wants his dead well and truly dead, corpses with no comeback.” But the brutal kidnapping of a young woman (Alex), which opens the book, occurs when Verhoeven’s replacement as head of the brigade criminelle is out of town, and the diminutive Commandant is tricked by his boss and friend, Divisionnaire Le Guen, into taking the case temporarily, with the inevitable result that it becomes his case. For the first third of the novel, the narrative alternates between the frenzied pace of police procedure, in the effort to save the kidnapped woman, and the portrayal of the brutal conditions of her captivity. As in the beginning of the previous novel, we are on standard plot territory here, a woman severely confined and tortured by a thuggish man who repeatedly says, “I’m going to watch you die, you filthy whore.” But as her torment and the investigation proceed, both Alex, the victim, and Camille, the investigator, realize that there is a link between the kidnapper and his captive. Their pursuit of this link provokes disastrous action by the police, but also a prefiguring of the sudden shift in the middle portion of the book that turns the story on its head: a shift that overturns both the woman-as-victim narrative and the entire genre of the serial killer (all the while remaining full of terror and torture).

-        In the third section of Alex, Verhoeven is following her not in the present but in her past, seeking the roots of her actions and personality, in large part through a long series of interviews with her brother (perhaps a reference to the extended interrogation in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna, also referred to in Irène). The awful truth that Camille discovers will explain all of the book’s twists, and lead to yet another twist in the story.

-        Camille, which has the most straightforward plot of the three novels, takes the Commandant back to the beginning of the trilogy: “His first wife was murdered, a tragedy from which he took years to recover. When you have faced such an ordeal, you assume that nothing more can happen to you. This is the trap.” Again, the ordeal happens not directly to him, but to the new woman in his life, Anne Forestier, who walks in on a jewelry store robbery and is beaten nearly to death. No one in the police knows about his new relationship, allowing Camille to step in as lead investigator, a lapse in personal and professional judgment that will leave his life in tatters.

-        The story of Camille is a three-day race against time, as the jewelry store robber seems determined to return to kill the witness and Camille pushes toward preventing him from doing so. The narrative focus is divided among an increasingly irrational Commandant, the surviving but terribly hurt Anne, and the man who attacked her (who gives us his story in his own voice). All three narratives explore the extreme violence that Anne suffers and its echoes in the story of Irène, and the lies that all of them are telling each other (as well as the truths they are all withholding from the reader) create overlapping dramatic ironies as well as contributing to the tension driving the story forward.

But even when we see the story from the points of view of Anne and her attacker, the overlapping of Camille’s past and present draws us back to Camille as the center of everything. There is a brutal honesty in the Commandant’s focus on himself: he feels responsible for Anne, but what he feels is not really sympathy but regret for what he has himself lost: “The woman who lies swollen and bandaged before him now has nothing of the magic, all that remains is the outer shell, and ugly, terribly prosaic body.” Even her own betrayal is ultimately less important to him than his loss of the “magic” of their affair. For all the violence against women in the trilogy (as in much crime fiction), it is Camille’s self-absorption that leads the narrative down into disaster and a final resolution. Having wrecked his career by lying to everyone in order to maintain control of the pursuit of the attacker, and having used the attacker’s own strategy to finally turn the tables on him, Camille reaches an abject state of loss that makes it possible for him to confront his own history, in particular the parts played by his mother and his wife. In Camille’s story there is a horrible assertion of male ego. This man of boy-like stature, having hidden his damaged lover in his mother’s studio in the forest (also the site of his wife’s murder) achieves a catharsis at the cost of several women’s misery. But that is a truth that the Commandant does not face. Lemaitre’s trilogy takes apart the structure of noir fiction and puts it back together in a new way but remains, like Camille (in his professional capacity), dependent on the genre’s reliance on violence against women. Lemaitre has continued to write about Commandant Verhoeven, extending the trilogy into a series. As new novels appear in English, it will be fascinating to see how far Lemaitre can extend his reimagining of the roman policier, as well as how he will develop his central character after the apotheosis at the end of the trilogy.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Helene Tursten review

My review of Helene Tursten's new Who Watcheth is now on-line at Los Angeles Review of Books:
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/pancakes-and-pea-soup/

Monday, January 16, 2017

From The Life Sentence: On Donna Leon

Another re-post of an article of mine from Lisa Levy's late lamented site The Life Sentence:


Obsession and Betrayal in Venice (Donna Leon 101)
In a 2003 interview at italian-mysteries.com, Donna Leon said that she doesn’t allow her very popular Commissario Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice, to be published in Italian translation because, “I don’t want to be famous where I live … the people in my neighborhood know that I am the American who lives opposite Nando and above Angelo. It would just change the tenor of my life.” The 24th book in the series, Falling in Love, deals directly with the consequences of the kind of fame Leon wants to avoid in her adopted country, in particular the phenomenon of the obsessed fan. Leon uses one of the ongoing themes in her series, the opera, as the setting for her examination of fandom, and as the central character she has chosen one of her few non-police recurring characters, the singer Flavia Petrelli, who appeared in the first Brunetti novel, Death at La Fenice (1992), as well as one of the best books in the series, Acqua Alta (1996, book five).
Leon’s reflection on fame and her return to Flavia provide a good opportunity to look back at the Brunetti series itself. It is one of the most popular crime series worldwide, with a particularly fervent fan base in Germany (where there is a German-language TV series based on the books) as well as the United States, Leon’s home country. Leon’s vivid evocation of the city of Venice is, of course, part of the appeal of the series. She doesn’t dwell on the tourists or tourist attractions (which are a constant background to the series and the city itself), dealing instead mostly with the city’s real life: its shopkeepers, aristocrats — among them Brunetti’s in-laws, Conte Orazio and Contessa Donatella Falier — as well as immigrant workers, bureaucrats, criminals, and police. Also in evidence is the shadowy and sinister face of this unique city, as seen in Brunetti’s pursuit of a fleeing figure in the new novel:
He saw a figure, really half a figure, standing at the point where a calle opened on to the riva. He saw a coat, perhaps a raincoat, perhaps a scarf. Brunetti’s step faltered and he came down heavily on his left foot … When he looked again, the figure was no longer there, the only trace of it the sound of diminishing footsteps.
The passage suggests the maze-like pathways as well as the unique quality of noise in this city built on water: sound travels quickly and echoes off water and walls, making faraway noises seem immediate and even threatening.
The running cast of characters also has a lot of appeal, among them a feckless boss, Vice-Questore Patta, a nemesis who remains mostly (ominously) offstage; Lieutenant Scarpa; Brunetti’s assistant, Vianello; Patta’s omnicompetent (and somewhat subversive) secretary, Signorina Elettra; and, of course, Brunetti’s wife, Paola, a professor of English literature, and their children, Chiara and Raffi (who age very slowly through the series, remaining in the spectrum of childhood to late adolescence).
While the Brunetti books, with their abundance of local color and gastronomic treats, appeal to the fans of the traditional mystery, Leon has something darker and deeper in mind. Brunetti’s investigations frequently do not result in clear answers or resolutions. Falling, for example, concludes with an unexpected abduction, leaving Brunetti and Vianello rushing to catch up. The book ends with a sudden resolution that the two policemen can only witness helplessly. The scene also includes a passage typical of Leon’s use of language and imagery: in her moment of greatest threat, the victim muses that the “things that made her herself, had ceased to function. She looked down and saw her shoelace and though of how beautiful it was, how perfect, what a wonderful way to tie a shoe, and how efficient shoes were, to keep your feet safe. Safe.” Leon pauses the rapid pace of the final events for a moment that captures the abductee’s adrenalin-heightened mental state and emphasizes the emotional reality of the threat, not just the physical aspects.
Frequently both justice and Brunetti’s intentions are derailed by corruption and the powerful political, aristocratic, and bureaucratic forces of the seemingly all-powerful but nearly invisible organized crime networks. The ongoing theme of the series is a confrontation between ordinary humanity and powerful forces that are at best indifferent and sometimes malevolent. In negotiating this territory, Brunetti and his closest associates (in particular Vianello and Elettra) often work within the cracks of both the legal system and the social order, while the interests of Patta, Scarpa, and sometimes even Paola’s parents, the aristocratic Falier family, do not always cohere with Brunetti’s. (Falier is indeed the name of a historic family in Venice, though the palazzo that bears their name in the novels does not exist).
In one passage, Brunetti’s thoughts to himself give a sense of the whole series, as well as the particularities of Falling in Love:
[He] had rarely had to deal with the mad. The behavior of the bad made sense: they wanted money or power or revenge or someone else’s wife, and they wanted them for reasons that another person could understand. Further, there was usually a connection between them and their victims: rivals, partners, enemies, relatives, husband and wife. Find a person. Find a person who stood to gain—and not only in the financial sense from the death or injury of the victim and put some pressure on that connection or start to wind in the connecting line, and very often the returning tug would lead to the person responsible. There had always been a line: the secret was to find it. Here, however, the reason might have been nothing more than a casual conversation, a bit of praise, a bit of encouragement.
The lack of any reasonable motive makes the detective’s usual methods, focused as they are on personal and social links among those affected by a crime, ineffective.
Falling in Love begins with a performance of Tosca that highlights a series of events in Flavia Petrelli’s recent life that to anyone else would not seem to invite any kind of danger. After performances on her current tour — at the opening of the novel, she’s reached Venice’s La Fenice Theater — the stage and her dressing room are filled with a cascade of yellow roses that go beyond the usual adoration of her fans. She asks Brunetti, when he greets her after attending a performance, to look into the threat that she perceives in the overabundance of flowers. Not entirely convinced at first, the detective gradually enters the world of opera fans who demand access to the star and even a reciprocation from the singer of the obsessive love they feel toward the object of their obsession. Along the way, we get a backstage tour of the world of opera, with all its artifice, jealousy, and artistic achievement. Since the opera is Tosca, we also get some ironic parallels to the Brunetti novels themselves: the story deals with murder, suicide, and a corrupt policeman named Scarpia. (Leon’s wry reference to her own maleficent Lieutenant Scarpa is reinforced by a sly joke about shoes — the Italian word for “shoe” being “scarpa.”)
Though some readers may be startled or unsatisfied by her frequently ambiguous endings, Leon has accomplished the not inconsiderable task of joining the atmosphere and social realism of noir with the charm and appeal of the traditional mystery. Her portrait of Venice (and Italy in general) is clear eyed about the attractions as well as the sometimes very dark realities of Venetian and Italian life: in Falling in Love she refers to the “crowds, the corruption, the cruise ships, the general cheapening of everything.” Her plots, which often have a natural quality, as if the author didn’t plan them so much as let them happen, also defy sub-genre classification. There are sometimes puzzle-like qualities, but always based on the actions of people caught in the contradictions of the city and its diverse cultural elements. More frequently, Brunetti, doggedly and with considerable frustration, fights his way through a fog of shadowy motives and erratic actions until there is a clearing of sorts that gives the reader (if not the detective) some kind of resolution, as well as an investigation of the facts of contemporary life in (and beyond) Venice. In the new novel, Leon also, with some astringency and perhaps a bit of vengefulness, demonstrates the sometimes unpleasant burden of fame, through her depiction of an extreme example of the fans and devotees from whom the author seeks some solace in her Italian anonymity.
- See more at: http://thelifesentence.net/book/obsession-and-betrayal-in-venice-donna-leon-101/#sthash.Q4FohLZP.dpuf

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Lisa Brackmann: China series


A Dystopian China (Lisa Brackmann 101)

Recent news that the Chinese government has allowed the artist Ai Weiwei to exhibit his work in China for the first time in years has an echo in the most recent (and probably last) installment of one of crime fiction’s most successful portrayals of China and the Chinese art world. Lisa Brackmann’s trio of Ellie McEnroe novels are not murder mysteries, though there’s plenty of murder and mystery in them. They’re more like exotic adventure novels or dystopian fantasies rooted in the everyday life of contemporary China. Each of the novels, Rock Paper Tiger (2010), Hour of the Rat (2013), and the new Dragon Day (2015), follows a similar pattern, within an overall story arc. Ellie McEnroe is an expat American, a wounded, PTSD-suffering Iraq-war veteran (having been a National Guard medic) who follows her husband to China and then, after a contentious separation from both the husband (who works for a Blackwater-type security company) and the Christian faith that they had shared, finds herself drawn into an underground culture of artists and video gamers.
The narrative is entirely in Ellie’s conversational, hip, obscene, and occasionally paranoid voice, and the novels depend entirely on the fact that her voice remains compelling and entertaining through the whole series. She’s not an action hero, she’s an ordinary woman who faces ordinary problems as well as extraordinary ones: when her landlady doubles the rent on her apartment in Beijing, it’s “more than I can afford, even if I could sell…Zhang’s art again. On my craptastic disability pension? I could maybe afford the bathroom. But hey, at least my landlady isn’t trying to kill me or have me arrested, right? At least not so far as I know.” The narrowing of point of view to Ellie’s own is also a key element in the portrait of contemporary China: she is an outsider, curious about and sympathetic toward the people and the rapidly transforming culture but always at its fringes.
Because of her character’s perspective, Brackmann’s trilogy is quite different from the other prominent crime series set in China, Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, set mostly in Shanghai. Ellie is based in Beijing but travels frequently to Shanghai and other Chinese cities and villages, but Chen’s view of the country and his city are from an insider’s perspective (albeit an insider not comfortable with the role he has been assigned, a policeman enforcing the power of the Party). Each of the Chen novels uses the story of a crime to portray not only contemporary life in China but also the inner mechanisms of the Communist Party as it exerts its power and control over individuals and the masses. Through Ellie’s eyes, however, we see only results, with the Party itself hidden behind the erratic harassment that Ellie, the artists she works with, and others suffer at the hands of the shadowy security services. The limiting of the perspective to Ellie’s own gives Brackmann’s novels a more dystopian and paranoid tone, while Qiu’s stories are more descriptive or sociological, if also a bit pessimistic about the Chinese system.
Ellie becomes an assistant and (maybe) girlfriend of an artist with a foot in both the art world and the gaming world, Zhang Jianli (whose independent attitude suggests that Ai Weiwei is a model for the character, though Ai himself is also referred to in Dragon Day). Because of that association, she finds herself on the run across China, uncertain of which of the people she encounters are friends and which are enemies — and which are possibly both at the same time. Her paranoia and the (to American eyes) exotic locales through which she passes drive the sense of both threat and adventure in the story, while the overarching government surveillance she encounters and ambiguity of good and evil, friend and foe, and contrast between reality and pretense power the dystopian surveillance and terror underlying everything that she experiences. As she walks toward a subway stop, she says, “when the door of the black Buick parked with two wheels up on the curb opens in front of me, my first reaction is just to step out of the way. Then two guys get out, two muscular guys with short haircuts and nondescript clothes. My heart pounds in my throat. Not this again. ‘Qu lioaotianr,’ one of them says. Let’s go for a chat. ‘Just for tea,’ the other says, smiling.” She’s not being arrested, just interrogated about Zhao, who has himself not been charged with a crime: “That isn’t how things work in China. First they decide you’re a threat. Then they find a label for it.” When the cops remind her that “your status here can change at any time,” she tells herself this could just mean “We’re revoking your visa and kicking you out of the country” or “We’re throwing your ass in jail. An official prison or a black jail, off the books.” Her China also takes on some of the qualities of the science-fiction end of the adventure/dystopia spectrum, in the strange landscapes and otherworldly cities she passes through. In the new book, for example, she describes a view of Shanghai’s “old, restored European buildings, science-fiction skyscrapers lurking behind them like invaders from another planet, obscured by mist.” Later, searching for one of the many art spaces popping up in Beijing’s outskirts, she sees a devastated cityscape: “The sky looks like something out of a science-fiction movie, all yellow, an alien planet. A plastic bag floats by like an airborne jellyfish.” The shadowy policemen who keep inviting her for “tea” fit right into these landscapes, and Ellie’s constant state of anxiety is in keeping with both the interrogators and the atmosphere.
The first book in the series, Rock Paper Tiger, is set into motion by a dissident from the Uighur community who is on the run from the government, and Ellie’s encounter with him puts Zhang and herself at odds with the Chinese police and security services. Zhang remains in hiding for most of the rest of the trilogy, hunted by the government and reachable by Ellie only within a Second-Life-like online game of his own design. Book two, Hour of the Rat, begins with a request from a former Army buddy to find his missing brother, leading Ellie into the investigation of the ecological horrors being visited upon the Chinese people and environment, and she is battered back and forth among the pervasive government security forces and the corporations and the activists who are at odds with each other over the environmental destruction.
Throughout the series, her role as the missing artist Lao’s official representative gives her a certain cachet among both the art community and rich collectors. She is also constantly threatened and/or rescued by a shadowy Chinese cop she calls “Creepy John,” whose motives for following her may arise from an official assignment or his own interests, as well as by violent and unscrupulous security contractors associated with her former husband. Ellie’s mother, only a voice on the phone in the first novel, arrives in China for a visit in the second and stays, adopting a Chinese boyfriend and complicating Ellie’s life because she needs to protect her mother from the forces, public and private, that hover ominously over her own tenuous life in China.
Dragon Day begins with Ellie obligated to a wealthy man, Sidney Cao, whose mania for art collecting as well as his capacity for ruthlessness were a big part of Hour of the Rat. Cao wants a piece by Lao Zhang, but the artist, still in hiding, refuses to sell anything (because the government may be building a case for tax fraud against him, a strategy that the government has indeed adopted in its attacks on artists: again, Ai Weiwei is the most prominent example, though the government has recently restored Ai’s right to travel). And now Cao also wants Ellie to give an opinion of the sleazy and sinister Marsh Brody, an American entrepreneur who is gaining influence over Cao’s overprivileged son, Gugu. In the process, she encounters Cao’s other overprivileged children as well as Uncle Yang, the father-in-law of one of them, an influential, conservative party member who is worried about changes that may come in the next party congress, and therefore responds with aggression to Ellie’s attempt to infiltrate the family.
From Cao’s ghost city, a millionaire’s dream with as yet no population, to movie studios in the south (where Gugu is trying his hand as a filmmaker), to upscale clubs and restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing, and through the contrasting neighborhoods of still-preserved traditional houses and soulless concrete developments, Ellie tries to get a fix on two deaths that occur in the circle of Cao’s children, while also trying to be certain about the motives of the slimy Brody (since she knows that if she reports her suspicions to him, Cao is fully capable of having him killed). Plus Zhao announces that he’s coming out of hiding, complicating her relations with both her wealthy patrons and the representatives of the state, from Creepy John to the police to Uncle Yang’s thugs.
After the first of the McEnroe novels, Brackmann published a stand-alone thriller, Getaway, which follows a young widow who travels to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and her getaway vacation turns into a getaway of a different sort when she finds herself caught between an attractive stranger and a violent gang. It’s an effective adventure story, of the innocent-abroad sort, but its location (while exotic) lacks the paranoid intensity and political edge of the conflict between the Chinese surveillance state, the rapacious capitalism, and the artists and ordinary citizens Ellie encounters in the trilogy.
The plots in the trilogy can meander a bit, as Ellie travels from place to place and becomes exposed to one threat after another, and her ongoing concerns (with her safety and with access to the Percocet she depends on to alleviate her war wounds) are in her thoughts and her interior monologue repeatedly, but the rambling plots and the repetition hardly matter: the point is Ellie’s voice and her view of this rapidly changing, sometimes oppressive, sometimes permissive culture. She is absolutely convincing, both as a character and as a witness to an unpredictable realm where past, present, and future constantly collide.